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Florida residents drop sugarcane burning lawsuit

Before sugar cane is harvested, farmers set fire to it to burn away the leaves.
Dan Charles
/
NPR
Before sugar cane is harvested, farmers set fire to it to burn away the leaves.

A lawsuit claiming that the sugar industry’s controlled crop burns are dangerous to nearby residents in Florida was dropped on Friday.

Attorneys for several of Florida’s largest sugar companies and attorneys for a dozen residents from Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach counties agreed in West Palm Beach federal court that the case should be dismissed with prejudice and each side should pay their own attorney fees, according to court records.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in June 2019, claiming the burns reduce property values and compromise air quality with toxic carcinogens.

One of the companies named in the lawsuit was U.S. Sugar Corporation, the largest producer of sugar cane in the United States by volume. Company spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said sugarcane farmers have maintained from the start that the lawsuit was without merit.

“We believed the science, data and regulations that support our work every day would show that the air quality in the Glades is ‘good’ — the highest quality under federal regulations,” Sanchez said.

U.S. Sugar recently released three years of air quality data from public and private monitors located throughout the farming communities. Sanchez said every monitor provided consistent data confirming the air is safe and meets all state and federal clean-air standards.

Attorneys for the residents didn’t immediately respond to emails from The Associated Press.

For generations, Florida’s sugarcane farmers have legally set fire to their fields prior to the harvest, leaving only the cane. The practice reduces transportation costs because they ship the cane without the surrounding vegetation.

According to state data, cane growers burned more than 1.5 million acres (2 million hectares) of sugarcane between 2008 and 2018 in the area south of Lake Okeechobee. That’s a land mass about the size of Delaware.

In several major sugar-producing countries such as Brazil, the practice is being phased out due to health concerns. The fires can produce sooty plumes of smoke that hover over the surrounding communities and dust the area with burnt flakes of plant matter. The industry standard in Brazil involves repurposing plant waste into mulch, bioplastics or a clean energy source.